Since 2015, the University of Minnesota has invested significantly on behalf of students with mental health issues and related stigma. It has held multiple convocations on the issue and significantly increased funding and staff of Boynton Mental Health Services. Student government leaders have made student mental health tentpole issues in their advocacy. However, no such advocacy has occurred on behalf of the numerous students with disabilities and chronic illnesses. The dearth of this common dialogue is apparent throughout our University to anyone with a disability. Many students in professional programs choose to never disclose their disability status, because they have a real fear of reprisals for requesting accommodation to which they have legal right. This is not an idle concern, as at a recent meeting, several faculty representatives insinuated that they were concerned students would “fake” disabilities in order to gain accommodations and thus, an unfair advantage in their classes. This displays a lack of understanding of the process students need to go through to have their disabilities and chronic illness officially confirmed by the University, which then entitles them to the legal right for accommodations.
It is minimally estimated that 25 to 33 percent of the entire student body are students with disabilities, chronic illness and/or mental health concerns. Many receive services from the Disability Resource Center (DRC). Forty-four percent of the caseload of the DRC are students with mental health diagnoses. This means that 56 percent of their caseload are students with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Yet this campus is mostly silent about their needs. Since 2015, there have been no convocations about students with disabilities. There have been no Provost- 2 level committees formed on behalf of students with disabilities. Neither President Kaler nor President Gabel have made public comment regarding issues faced by students with disabilities. In most University meetings on equity and diversity, issues faced by students with disabilities are rarely, if ever, mentioned. An example of this disparity in meeting needs is that since 2015 much has been done to make restrooms accessible to gender nonbinary people. Yet, a disabled student must formally request an accommodation to have a button door opener installed on the exterior door of a bathroom not already so equipped AND the student must justify why they are in that building and having to use a bathroom doesn’t count.
It is painfully obvious to many students with disabilities and/or chronic illnesses that many within our University view the needs of students with disabilities negatively or are completely oblivious to them, in stark contrast to their views on the needs of students with mental health issues. We can truly support all our students by changing only slightly how we discuss and consider issues of disability, chronic illness and mental health concerns. Faculty, staff and the DRC can support students with disabilities and provide necessary support for students facing mental health concerns. Doing less is institutional failure to address latent discrimination. It is also a violation of students’ federally mandated civil rights.
This letter to the editor has been lightly edited for style and clarity.
Written by Ryan J. Machtmes, president of the Organization for Graduate and Professional Students with Disabilities.